EYEWITNESS LOCAL NEWSLocal History: The Medium And The Magician, Part One
from Eyewitness News Online
Reported by: Doug Harlow
Web Producer: Jeff Morris
Reported: Oct. 30, 2013 1:46 PM EDT
Updated: Oct. 31, 2013 4:05 PM EDT
Bradrick , Lawrence County , Ohio
Halloween is a time to share ghost stories and local legends.
Many residents are familiar with our area’s mysteries. Virtually everyone has heard of Mothman and nearly as many the Flatwoods Monster. But few may recognize the name Elizabeth Blake. Indeed, her identity would not even register with most professional parapsychologists. At the turn of the century, however, Blake was perhaps one of the most famous individuals in the Tri-State region, so much so that her death in 1920 warranted a headline on the front page of the Ironton Daily Register.
Blake was a professed spiritualist medium; she claimed that the dead spoke to her. She was born in Proctorville, Ohio, in 1847. When she was about 2 years old, she moved with her parents to Cabell County, then moved back across the river when she married Zachariah Blake in 1879. From that time until her death in 1920, she lived in a modest home in Bradrick (sometimes known as Coryville, Ohio), directly across the Ohio River from 24th Street in Huntington and just about halfway between Chesapeake and Proctorville.
Early in childhood, she claimed to hear voices in her ear. A doctor tried putting a closed receptacle to her ear and the voices became audible to all present. In time, a trumpet was devised that appeared to make the voices sound even clearer. Not only were these voices plainly heard, but they professed to be those of deceased relatives. As word of this spread through the surrounding communities, hundreds and eventually thousands descended on the Blake household to hear them.
Spiritualism was a wide-ranging movement during the second half of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th. The core tenant of the religion was that the dead could communicate through the living through physical means (such as movements of tables/furniture and rapping noises) and through words and writing. Select individuals, known as mediums, acted as a conduit between the dead and living and these persons would hold what became known as “séances” to bring the two into communication.
While some mediums genuinely believed what they were doing was real (whether it truly was or was simply self-delusion), a large number were con-artists, resorting to a variety of tricks (usually in a completely dark room) to fool sitters into believing they were in communication with deceased loved ones.
On first glance, Blake didn’t appear to be much different from any of the other mediums operating at the time. She would use a tinhorn or trumpet-like device, placing one end to her own ear while the participant would place the other end to their own. Voices, or whispers, of varying clarity and volume would then be heard to speak and would purportedly convey personal information that seemed unlikely to be known by Blake herself. Sometimes these voices actually sounded like the person they claimed to be, although most of the time they did not bear any resemblance. But unlike most mediums, Blake’s voices could be heard in the light, not requiring a dark room that provided cover for all kinds of deception. In addition, her voices didn’t speak in generalities but could sometimes offer specific information and names of a stranger’s family and even answer test questions that were posed out of the blue. Over the years, Blake’s reputation spread and by the turn of the century, she was attracting the attention of many prominent people throughout the Ohio Valley, including William Dawson, the governor of West Virginia.
In 1905, a gentleman by the name of E.A. Parsons heard about her reputation and traveled from Connecticut to see her. Better known as Henry Hardin, a prominent magician and dealer of magic paraphernalia, Parsons was impressed by Blake and also greatly puzzled. In spite of his conjuring background, he could not figure out where the voices came from, nor how they seemed to know names and other details regarding his family in New England. If it was simply a conjuring trick, he wanted the secret for himself, so he wrote to the man who, more than any other, could figure it out. That man was David Abbott, a successful Midwest businessman and highly regarded amateur magician and magic inventor. Abbott was especially interested in reproducing spiritualistic effects and this led him to observe a number of mediums. In virtually every instance, he was able to detect trickery and determine how the effect was done. This led him to publish a number of these methods in “The Open Court” magazine, a publication produced by his friend, respected philosopher and theologian Paul Carus. Later, Abbott would produce one of the definitive books exposing the tricks of Spiritualist séances entitled, “Behind the Scenes with Mediums.”
Reading of Abbott’s exposures in “The Open Court,” Parsons determined this was a man who could solve the puzzle about Blake. He told Abbott about his sittings and expressed his wish that Abbott would investigate and discover the secret. After some reluctance, Abbott agreed and prepared to journey from his home in Nebraska to the banks of the Ohio River in July 1906. Soon, in the same “The Open Court” magazine where he had detailed the exposures of mediums, he would instead “give to the public an account of the most remarkable case that it has ever been my fortune to investigate -- the weird and dramatic effect of what on the surface appeared to be voices of the dead talking to me and exhibiting an intimate knowledge of my family history, will remain with me through life.”
To be continued . . .
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